Know how to play

If you have a chance to audition, it's crucial to know the game very, very well. Mattye Bresnen of Austin, Texas, tried out for "Catch 21" while spending a summer in Los Angeles. She knew the basics, but her lack of deep preparation showed.

The casting director nearly ruled her out, but Bresnen asked for another chance. She practiced the game and, when called to appear, won $2,000.

"Practice it. Study it," Bresnen says. "No matter how enthusiastic you are, how personable, how charismatic -- if you don't know how to play the game, you're not going to get on."

Will you be chosen?

You might ace the written test, whip through a practice game and bubble with charm during the videotaped interview, but you won't be chosen unless you fit what the producers are seeking.

"It's not a personal thing. It's more based on the needs of the show," says Nicole Dunn, who worked for the syndicated version of "The Weakest Link."

She sought a mix of personalities: "You had your brainiac person who knew everything, and you had your eye candy -- the woman or the man who's going to get the viewers' attention. Then you had your nurses or doctors or firefighters, America's favorites."

Sometimes they even pick journalists. I was a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News when I was chosen for "Jeopardy." A co-worker, Linda Billington, also passed the audition but was never called. (I have no idea why, since she's more interesting than I am. She once wrestled a tiger, for heaven's sake.)

But in 2002 Billington appeared on the syndicated version of "The Weakest Link." Toward the end of the episode, she was voted off by a pair of contestants who went on to fail the last round spectacularly.

"And I knew every answer," says Billington, a Mensa member who's semiretired and works part time on the newspaper's copy desk.

It wasn't Billington's first brush with game-show stardom. In the late 1960s she appeared on "To Tell the Truth," impersonating a former nun. She snookered one panelist, actor Tom Poston, and took home $33.33.

How much can you win?

We can't all be Ken Jennings, who won $2.5 million in 74 days on "Jeopardy." Depending on the show, you can go home with a few hundred dollars or a few hundred thousand.

It's unlikely you'll land on the high end of the paycheck scale, even though prime-time game shows love to use the phrase "a million dollars." Carrie Grosvenor, who writes the Game Shows Guide for About.com, has been watching just about every game show there is for the past four years. During that time she's seen fewer than 10 million-dollar winners.

That's not say that big wins don't happen. One of Pomerantz's shopping-mall finds won $500,000. A young woman she met at random was on two shows, winning a total of $350,000.

Even so, the casting director tells people to forget about the money and just have fun playing the game. Someone has to lose, and it might be you -- especially since there's a lot of pressure once the cameras roll.

On national television

I well remember the pressure. The stage lights were hot, and the presence of a live audience made me very nervous. I rang in too early a number of times, which locked me out for two-tenths of a second -- plenty of time for the know-it-all next to me to chirp things like "Who was Pliny the Elder?"

It was still a blast, though. I flashed back on a childhood memory of watching "Jeopardy" while home from school, sick. I remembered thinking: "Boy, those people know a lot. I wish I could do that."

A couple of decades later, there I was on national television, winning enough money to pay for my daughter's orthodontia.

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Looking back, I wish I'd had more fun and fewer heart palpitations. I wish I hadn't locked myself out of answering so much. I wish I'd been bolder about answering questions I wasn't sure of, because most of the time my answers would have been right.

I also wish I hadn't wound up paying taxes on prizes I didn't really need, like silverware and hair-care products. I didn't own a dog, yet I won a year's worth of pet food. Sadly, I was offered neither Rice-A-Roni nor Lee Press-On Nails.

But at least I can say I've been on a game show -- and maybe I'll do it again. Doing the research for this column has intrigued me. I'm starting to wonder whether I really want to be a millionaire. Or if I'm really smarter than a fifth-grader.

Correction: An earlier version of this column misidentified Bev Pomerantz as a casting director for the Game Show Network. She is an independent casting director who works on programs that appear on the network.

Donna Freedman is a freelance writer in Seattle. You can find more of her writing on MSN Money's Frugal Cool blog and at Surviving and Thriving (motto: "Life is short. But it's also wide.").